Why Gymnasts Get Mental Blocks

gymnastics mental blocks

Research has found issues with “lost skills” or “mental blocks” in many sports

Mental blocks can happen in running, javelin throwing, baseball/softball pitching, soccer, hurdling, golf, tennis, trampoline, and of course gymnastics.

I’ve even seen singers “lose their voice” in a similar way. No matter what sport you play, it’s frustrating.

I’ll go over the main causes of mental blocks, then tell you how to get over it.

In my experience coaching athletes through a mental block, it’s almost always caused by one of these 10 things or a combination of them:

1. Social Factors

There are so many ways social factors can play a part in creating mental blocks.

Any time an athlete experiences big changes (new coach, new gym, new school, etc.) it can affect mental toughness.

Consistency builds confidence.  When the support system is inconsistent, an athlete’s confidence can start to waver.

What’s important in these situations is that you learn how to cope with social changes as soon as possible so the mental block doesn’t get too locked in.

I’ve worked with several gymnasts who start getting blocked around the time they start getting picked on by other kids on their team (or coaches). It can come in the form of well-meaning comments like “oh come on, just do it!” or more negative comments like “you’ll never be able to move up if you don’t get that skill.” Sarcasm and threats cause even more stress.

Because athletes age 12+ are becoming more socially motivated, it’s critical that they feel safe both physically and emotionally in order to try difficult skills in the gym.

If an athlete is starting to build strong friendships outside of the gym, that can cause mental blocks as well.

When a gymnast has to choose between being a part of the fun outside the gym and going to practice, skills can suffer.  This is because (either consciously or subconsciously) the gymnast might start resenting gymnastics for getting in the way of her social life.

2. Ineffective Coaching

In my 15 years of coaching competitive gymnastics, I was guilty of being too tough and too soft.

Sometimes I would get frustrated and yell, ignore, punish, or give rope climbs – because I was willing to try anything to get a kid un-stuck.

I also tried taking the pressure off and letting a fearful gymnast move at her own pace.

Neither of these methods had 100% success.

What I learned through studying sport psychology and specifically the psychology of confidence-building was:

  • – Every athlete has different motivators, and these can change over time.
  • – Positive coaching creates a safer emotional climate, which can lead to more success.
  • – There is no one-size-fits-all way to coach a gymnast through fear.
  • – Even the most well-meaning coach can sometimes make fear worse, so if the block is becoming a real problem, you might consider seeking help outside the gym.

3. Fear of injury/re-injury

One of the main ways that athletes build confidence is through past successes.

Conversely, a way that kids build up fear is through past failures like falls and injuries.

The mind is such a powerful force in gymnastics that if an athlete believes they will get hurt, their chances of getting hurt increase drastically.

Post-injury, it’s important to ease back in to skills, building on new successes and creating new images of success in the mind that override the “worst case scenario” images that are playing on loop in a fearful gymnast.

4. Fear of embarrassment

For example, I worked with a gymnast who started losing her twisting skills on floor.

She was baffled by the lack of control. She didn’t know if she was going to twist or not until she was upside down in mid air. This became terrifying, so she didn’t even want to flip anymore.

We talked out all of the things that had changed since her tumbling started acting up. It turns out she had changed gyms recently and there were cute boys at her new gym.

She felt added pressure to show off and be perfect, which led her to “accidentally twist” one of her flips, setting the whole thing in motion. When she accidentally twisted to show off and look good infront of a particular boy, she ended up flat on her butt and mortified.

We discovered that her fear of embarrassment was keeping her from trying her difficult skills.

Once she realized it, I presented her with a choice:

  • Either avoid embarrassment but stay blocked…
  • Or be willing to look stupid and fail in order to get your skills back.

It was an easy choice for her. She would rather risk falling on her butt in front of the cute boy than give up her dream of competing in college.

The solution here was two-fold: figure out what triggered the skill loss, then make a decision and tap into the passion that’s stronger than the fear (in her case, doing gymnastics for as long as possible).

5. Perfectionism

This is a big one. Some of the hallmarks of perfectionism are:

  • Fear of letting people down
  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of not looking good

The irony is that people who are so committed to being perfect usually do things perfectly, but they are overly conservative.

These athletes play not to lose, rather than taking risks and playing to win.

This is the kid that would rather be a little short of handstand on bars than fall over. They play it safe, and don’t like playing games they might not win.

I know this one well. Too well. When I’m on the cusp of a big challenge, it usually takes my support squad – family, coaches, and colleagues pushing me the last few inches of the way. Otherwise the temptation is to quit before I have a chance to fail.

The biggest thing a perfectionist can do to get over a mental block is to be surrounded by people who believe in you. People who can see what you’re capable of, and who won’t love you any less if you make a mistake.

The more support and unconditional love you feel surrounding you, the more willing you will be to get outside your comfort zone and risk failure in order to truly see what you’re capable of.

6. Negative imagery

I mentioned this a little bit in terms of injury, but this is something most gymnasts don’t realize they’re doing.

Many people, especially “visual learners” tend to see their skills in mental images before they do them.

Because you’re in your body, you can’t see yourself doing a skill (unless it’s on video). That’s why coaches are so important for helping you improve skills and technique.

The problem is that it’s easy to have a warped image in your mind of what your body is doing.

Have you ever had an experience of a coach giving you a correction like, “your legs were bent” and you think to yourself, “no, they weren’t?”

You may really believe your legs were straight, even seeing an image in your head of you doing it with straight legs, but ultimately you have to trust an outside perspective to help you improve.

Along the same lines, your coach may say “you’re ready to do it on the high beam, go for it!” and you think to yourself “I’ll split the beam” or “I’m going to miss my hands.” When you have these thoughts, you likely see an image in your mind of you missing your hands, falling, getting hurt, doing it poorly, etc.

Imagery is an incredibly powerful tool (for better or for worse).

When you see a vivid image in your mind of something happening, your brain believes it’s really happening. This send signals to your muscles, telling them to recreate the image.

Also, confidence and fear are built on past experiences, so if your brain keeps experiencing falls and failure, your confidence will decrease and fear will increase without you even realizing it’s happening!

7. Progressing too fast

One of my past clients started randomly losing her “easy” skills on beam. This happened as she started training more difficult skills.

She was a hard worker who happened to be a really strong and graceful gymnast. She had been progressing quickly through the levels as a result.

When we worked together, we thought back to when the fear started. She made the connection that every time she got a new skill, her coaches were ready to keep moving her forward to the next one.

Although she was physically able to do the skills, she hadn’t built up enough mental confidence to support her.

She associated success with an immediate step up to the next skill. Without realizing it, she started taking a long time on easy skills to slow down her progress.

Her coach wouldn’t move kids to the next assignment until they completed the first one, and this gymnast started getting stuck on skills like turns and handstands, which prevented her from getting many reps done on the hard skills, which in turn kept her from having to keep upgrading skills.

What worked for her was regaining a sense of control through communication with her parents and coaches.

She wanted to spend a little more time and more reps on new skills before feeling forced to move to the next progression. She and I came up with a plan for how to talk to her coach when she started feeling nervous and a healthy pace for progression that she could get behind.

8. Fear of success

Now this is a funny one. Not funny, “haha” but funny strange. It doesn’t make sense that anyone would fear success, does it? But it happens more often than you would think.

Consider the phrase: “it’s lonely at the top.”

For any gymnast who is one of the best on her team, or the hardest worker, there’s a risk that she could outpace her teammates and end up training alone. She also risks jealousy coming from girls she has grown up with.   Again, going back to the importance of social relationships in adolescence, success can be a risk.

Also, with success comes pressure. It might be just in your mind, but it’s there… the expectation that if you do well, you’ll have to keep doing well or you’ll let everyone down.

This is closely related to perfectionism:

  • If you do well, you’ll have to keep doing better and better, which could be really stressful.
  • And then if you fail, you’ll have farther to fall.

Self-sabotage is a shockingly common reaction to this. If you keep yourself small, you can blend in, then no one will notice if you make a mistake, because people don’t expect much from you.

Another scenario that can lead to fear of success is what I call, “competing commitments.”

I worked with a swimmer who kept sabotaging himself (subconsciously) because he wanted to go to a college that didn’t have a swim team.  Academics were his main commitment.  Swimming came second.

We discovered that he had a belief that if he swam too well he would get a lot of pressure to pursue swimming in college.  Once he realized this, he communicated it to his parents and finished high school with his strongest swimming season before hanging up his towel.

9. Reinforcing the balk

You know the saying, “practice makes perfect” – well that’s not exactly true. I prefer the saying “practice makes permanent.”

What you do repeatedly gets automated.

The first time a gymnast bails out in the middle of skill, it doesn’t mean anything other than, “that didn’t work.”

But, if you get into the habit of bailing, that becomes automated and it’s insanely difficult to override it.

Have you ever learned a skill on your backyard trampoline or at a different gym, then you go to do it in the gym and your coach makes you completely re-learn it?

They make you do a bunch of drills to fix the “wrong” way you learned it?

It’s way harder to do it that way than to learn a skill from scratch because of the automation factor.

When you’re dealing with the habit of balking, there are two solutions:

1. Come up with a balk routine: what you do when you balk to re-set and increase your chances of follow-through next time, and

2. Take a step back so you can commit to following through, even if it’s an easier progression.

Every time you balk, you reinforce the habit of bailing out.

Install new habits by temporarily going back to easier skills to build confidence and/or re-setting mentally before trying it again.

(You can grab a free copy of my Confidence Ladder at the bottom of this article.  It’s one of my favorite tools for getting you moving forward after a block takes over)

10. Expecting nerves to mess you up

You know the feeling when you’re going up a rollercoaster? Heart pounding, tense, butterflies, etc…

Well, some people love that feeling, and some dread it.

The same goes for the nerves that hit before a difficult skill or competition.

Some people consider that feeling of adrenaline helpful and useful (because it is!) and some people feel like they’re going to die. Then they go to worst case scenario thinking.

A study showed that just by saying the words “I’m excited!” and really trying to believe it, people’s performances under pressure improved significantly.

Try to see the heart pounding, butterfly feeling as a good thing and it won’t mess you up as much.

Once you figure out what caused the problem, how do you solve it?

How do you get your skills back?

Now that you have awareness, you have to make a decision:

Do I accept the block or do something about it?

The main cause of mental blocks is an increase of real (or perceived) pressure.

The key to overcoming it is to dissolve the pressure. I help clients do this by making connections between the pressure they’re feeling and the actual reality.

When we figure out the source of the added pressure (it’s usually mostly in their mind, but often environmental pressures and transition play a part) then we can start to dismantle it through mental skills training and a perspective shift.

How do you build mental toughness?

Sometimes fear that has been getting in the way for years can dissolve in just a handful of sessions once you realize where the pressure is coming from and come up with a plan to cope with it.

You build confidence through a series of successes.  This is a combination of actual completed skills and a general attitude of self-trust and optimism.

I understand the frustration that comes along with a mental block.  It can feel like there is no hope. Like it will always be this way and you need to keep substituting different skills that that you aren’t blocked on.

I was the kid stuck on the beam shaking and sweating.  I wanted to go for the skill but felt like I physically couldn’t. I didn’t know why it kept happening and I was devastated. This eventually led to me quitting the sport because I didn’t know it was possible to get over my fears.

Now I know my struggle was all worth it because this is the main issue I help clients through.

13-year-old me smiles every time I help someone overcome their mental block and move forward in their sport.

The bottom line:

Research shows that negative emotional reactions (like worrying what others will think) can cause mental blocks to start.

Then balking is reinforced, self-esteem and confidence suffer.

What you need is simple: perspective, empathy, and new coping skills. Once these are in place, I’ve found that it’s only a matter of time before you are back on track and having fun again.

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